I hope everyone has had a fantastic festive season and is refreshed and ready for 2018! I have been absent again for quite some time. Apart from the usual festive frivolity, some of this time away, as you may have gathered from this post’s title, has been spent immersing myself in a recent acquisition which I have been looking forward to trying for some time: Elder Scrolls Online.
While I have spent some minor time wandering about in the single player Elder Scrolls RPGs (mostly Morrowind and Oblivion), I know very little about the lore of Tamriel and have never been a huge fan of this series. I didn’t not like it… It was just never anything special to me.
This is going to be a long post, where I will be going in depth to analyse and quantify my experiences with this game, and explain its various systems. Over the past months, I have created 9 characters and levelled all of them to between level 10 and 30. So, I feel like I have a good handle on the different mechanics and playstyles (although, as I am sure will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone reading this, group content was a struggle at first).
CHARACTER CLASSES, RACES & CREATION
Tamriel is populated by numerous races, 10 of which are playable in ESO. There are three types of elves (High, Dark and Wood, known respectively in the lore as Altmer, Dunmer and Bosmer), Orcs (which are technicially considered to be a type of elf, known in the lore as Orsimer), half-elves of a sort (known as Bretons or Manmer), three true human races (the Spanish/Moorish/North African flavoured Redguards – also known as Yokudans, the Viking themed Nords and the vaguely Romanesque Imperials, also known as Cyrodils, for their homeland) and two “monstrous” races, the reptilian Argonians (known in the lore as Saxhleel) and the feline Khajit. The Imperials are a “premium” race, which one receives on purchasing the aptly named Imperial Edition of the game (I will have a short breakdown of the pricing models and purchase options later in the article).
On top of that menagerie of race choices, there are only a total of five playable classes (again, one is “premium” content). These classes are the Dragonknight (heroes with the blood of dragons flowing through their veins, with flame and rock based abilities, along with some minor shapeshifting), Templar (a spiritual warrior of the light, themed around healing and powerful light and sun based abilities), the Sorcerer (a summoner and elementalist), the Nightblade (a sneaky master of stealth, assassination and power draining) and finally, the Warden. The Warden is the new class, released with the Morrowind expansion and is a nature themed class, with abilities involving animals and plants.
The interesting thing is that, unlike almost every other MMO out there, the traditional trinity roles are not directly related to class choice. Any race and class combination can theoretically make a viable tank, healer or DPS. Each race has a toolkit of passive buffs which can improve performance in the various roles but, unless you intend to participate in high end raiding (called Trials in ESO) or ranked PVP, you can learn and play the game with any race and class combination which appeals to you. Weapon and armor choices are also not restricted by race and class choice, so there is a lot of freedom here to create a character which suits you and your playstyle. Weapon and armor choices will, however, start to funnel you down a path towards the trinity roles. So, for example, wearing light armor will give you passive abilities which boost the use of magic, while heavy armor provides passives which a tank will find useful. Alongside this, weapon choices provide active skills which aid in fulfilling certain roles, so Destruction staves allow you to use elemental themed ranged DPS spells, while bows have many powerful Damage Over Time skills. More on this in the next section.
While this type of system is not completely unique (although, nowadays so very little truly is), the granularity and scope of choices made to form a character are a breath of fresh air.
LEVELLING UP, SKILL LINES AND ATTRIBUTES
ESO has three primary stats, which further define playstyles and roles. The first is Health, which plays the same role as it does in any other game, but the other two are somewhat more interesting, as they play the role of both resources with which to pay for abilities and active stats which scale the effects of those abilities.
Magicka is the resource for all class abilities, unless they are modified to use Stamina. Also, the higher your Magicka, the more damage these abilities do. Stamina governs the use of weapon based combat and regulate the damage done by these abilities. In other words, if you throw a fireball at your enemy, it costs Magicka and your maximum Magicka pool determines how much damage said fireball does. Similarly, if you swing your sword, this costs Stamina and your maximum Stamina pool determines the damage of this swing. Your Stamina pool also pays for sprinting, blocking attacks and dodge rolling. Every time you go up a level, you earn a point (at some levels, more than one point) to allocate to Magicka, Stamina or Health.
Which brings us to levels and experience, which is where ESO does things a little differently (again). Your character has a level, which is increased in the usual ways (questing, killing mobs, crafting, etc). Each of your skill lines (think of these like skill trees in other games) also has a level, as does each skill in each of these skill lines. Each class has three unique skill lines which reinforce its overall theme so, for example, a Nightblade has skill lines for Assassination, Shadow and Siphoning. Each of the six weapon classes also has a skill line (Two Handed Weapons, One Handed Weapons with Shields, Bows, Dual Wielding, Destruction Staves and Restoration Staves). There are further skill lines for each of the three armor types (including passive abilities to aid in performing related activities, such as Magicka management for Light Armor, Stamina management for Medium Armor and Health management for Heavy Armor), each of five separate Guilds (Fighter, Mage, Thief, Assassin and Undaunted – a guild which encourages dungeoneering and group play), three PVP skill lines (Assault, Support and Emperor – because the highest ranked PVPer in a PVP campaign can be crowned Emperor for that campaign) and six crafting skill lines (Alchemy, Blacksmithing, Clothing, Enchanting, Provisioning and Woodworking). Finally, there are four World skill lines, which are all worthy of special mention.
The Legerdemain skill line contains passives which aid in breaking the law, something which fits into ESO’s well fleshed out Justice system. The game allows stealing from NPCs, which earns you a Bounty and flags city guards to chase you down to try and arrest you. Stolen goods must then be taken to an Outlaw’s Den to be fenced or laundered. The Outlaw’s Den can also be used to hide from guards until the heat dies down. Your Bounty can also be paid off legally (with the guards) or via underhanded schemes (via the Outlaw’s Den).
The Soul Magic skill line ties into the game’s main storyline, and couples with soul gems, a consumable item which is used to resurrect yourself or others in the world or to recharge enchantments on your weapons and armor.
The last two World skill lines are for the game’s two infections, Vampirism and Lycanthropy. Your character can become either a Vampire or a Werewolf through one of three methods (being bitten / scratched by specific NPC Vampires or Werewolves in the world, purchasing the skill line through the game’s cash shop or being bitten / scratched by another player who already has one of these skill lines unlocked and has the required ability to pass on their nasty disease). Both skill lines come with hefty advantages and disadvantages, such as a Vampire’s mist form and need to feed or a Werewolf’s enhanced combat abilities and susceptibility to certain attacks or abilities.
Each Skill Line has a selection of Passive abilities, usually one or more Active Skills and often a single Ultimate Ability. Ultimate abilities use a unique resource, separate from the three primary attributes and derive their damage scaling from either Magicka OR Stamina, whichever is greater.
When you start a new character, you will not see any of these skills lines, except for your class lines, as the rest need to be unlocked in different ways. Weapon skill lines and unlocked upon getting your first kill with the respective weapon equipped, while Armor skill lines are unlocked by wearing three pieces of armor of that weight simultaneously. Racial skill lines are unlocked by reaching character level 5 with a character of that race and crafting skills are unlocked by accessing a crafting station of the relevant type. PVP skill lines are of course unlocked by participating in PVP activities, the various Guild skill lines are unlocked through story means (joining the relevant Guild), the Legerdemain skill line through breaking the law and the Vampirism/Lycanthropy lines through the methods described above (i.e. becoming a Vampire or Werewolf). Finally, the Soul Magic skill line is unlocked during the course of the game’s main story quests.
Each of the skill lines, as previously mentioned, has its own level, which is advanced by various methods (Weapon and Class skill lines gain experience through using them and having their abilities on your skill bar), the Guild skill lines are advanced through advancing the Guild’s agenda, Armor Skill Lines are advanced by simply wearing pieces of that Armor weight (the more pieces of a particular weight which are worn, the faster that line will advance) etc.
Each time you level up you will receive, in addition to the aforementioned Attribute Points, a single Skill Point (again, at some levels more than one Skill Point). Skill Points are also awarded for completing certain quests and quest chains. And, finally, there are Skyshards scattered throughout the world, which can be absorbed. For every three absorbed, you will gain another Skill Point. There are currently close to 400 Skill Points earnable in the game, so there is a great deal of flexibility to experiment, and Skill Points (as well as Attribute Points) spent can be respecced at a cost at Rededication Shrines in all the faction Capitol cities for a per-point cost, so this will scale up dramatically in cost the more points one has earned.
These Skill Points can then be spent to unlock the Active and Passive Skills on each of the Skill Lines I mentioned above. Each Skill requires a certain level in its associated Skill Line. Once a skill point is spent on a given skill, it can then be placed on your Ability bar where it can be activated with a bound keypress, as in other hotkey based MMOs. Once it is on your Ability bar, it will (usually) contribute to experience gain it its parent Skill line. The more skills you have on your bar, the faster that skill line will advance. The skills on your bar will also gain levels themselves. Once a skill reaches level IV (4), it can be Morphed. This will require the expenditure of an additional Skill Point on a choice of two more advanced versions of the same skill. Sometimes, these Morphs will add more damage, a buff or debuff of some kind, a complete redesign of the Skill or a change of resource. As briefly mentioned above, Magicka and Stamina are very rigidly defined. With few exceptions, Magicka is for skills and Stamina is for Weapon use. Morphs, however, will allow some skills from the various trees to be modified to use Stamina instead of Magicka. This will enable Characters who are focused on the Stamina path to make more effective use of these Skills, as well as allow these skills to have their damage and effects regulated by Stamina rather than Magicka (because Stamina focused Characters will obviously have higher Stamina pools).
The latest patch has added a Level Up Advisor system, which will recommend skills and morphs appropriate to one of several roles which can be selected. It also provides some free stuff along the way, such as outfits, basic gear and even a free mount at level 10 (an absolutely stellar addition as, before this, one could only obtain mounts from the Crown Store or various Collectors Editions for real money or from a Stablemaster NPC for a whopping 40,000 gold!). The system also has minor hints and tips regarding gameplay designed to help newer players learn to play, something which is poorly paced and lacks detail, making this part of the system sorely lacking.
COMBAT, ACTION BARS AND GAMEPLAY
Superficially, the combat in ESO resembles that of Neverwinter Online. Movement is accomplished with mouse freelook and directional keys, while the mouse buttons are bound to basic attacks (tap left button for a light attack or hold it for two seconds to charge up a heavy attack), blocking (hold the right button to block enemy attacks) and interrupts / CC break (hit both mouse buttons simultaneously to interrupt a channelled enemy attack or heavy attack or to break Crowd Control). Breaking Crowd Control has no cooldown, but costs Stamina and results in a 7 second cooldown immunity.
Light and Heavy attacks deserve special mention due to their integration into the combat system. Both are free of resource cost, and the animations can be cancelled to allow quicker attacking, a process called weaving. Heavy attacks do more damage than light attacks, but lower the overall DPS due to the required 2 seconds charge time. Heavy attacks also leave one vulnerable, as they are telegraphed (human enemies can see that you are charging up a Heavy attack and, if they block this heavy attack, you will be stunned, leaving you open to a counterattack which does increased damage and knocks you down (you can obviously also do this to your enemies). But, Heavy attacks also play a vital role, as they not only cost no resources, but they actually restore a portion of the relevant resource pool (Stamina for Bows, Two Handers, One Hander with Shield and Dual Wields OR Magicka for Destruction and Restoration Staves). While each Attribute has its own regeneration, you will still need to use Heavy attacks at some point to manage your resources. Light and Heavy attacks also generate Ultimate, the resource used to activate your Ultimate Skills.
Weaving is achieved by clicking the left mouse button (usually for a light attack), then immediately pressing a hotkey to activate a Skill. This will cancel the animation of the Light attack, but still apply its effects, as both attacks will go off at the same time. This is not an exploit, but simply part of the game’s mechanics, although it should be noted that, especially in the early parts of the game, imperfect weaving is unlikely to penalise you much. But, if you are wanting to hit the DPS highs in that end-game content, best you start practicing early.
While your character will have numerous Skills, they will need to decide tactically which to take with them into any given combat (you cannot swap out Skills from your bar or any gear while you are in combat). You only have a total of six slots on your bar, one of which is a dedicated Ultimate slot, so wise decisions must be made. Once you reach level 15, however, an additional Action bar is unlocked, and you can switch between these bars at any time, effectively doubling your toolkit to 10 normal Skills and 2 Ultimates (although the same pool of Ultimate points is shared between both Ultimate skills; more tactical decision making!).
ESO also contains a Stealth system, which is not connected to any particular class. Essentially, pressing the crouch/sneak button causes you to enter sneak mode, which reduces the range at which you can be detected (certain skill lines, such as the Khajiit racial line and the Legerdemain World Skill line have passives which reduce this detection range, improving your sneakiness). Approaching your target from the rear also helps to remain undetected. Your first physical attack on the enemy, which obviously removes you from Stealth, will be an automatic critical hit. Also, note that moving around in Stealth mode will drain your Stamina, which will only start to regenerate again once you stop moving. Sneaking obviously also incurs a hefty movement speed penalty, although this can be alleviated with certain skills and gear set bonuses.
The crafting system also opens up access to food and drinks, which provide you with boosts to Primary Attributes (from food) and Primary Attribute Regeneration (from drinks), with better quality foods having the potential to buff more than one Attribute at the same time. There are also potions, which do the usual things (healing, buffs, etc.) and Poisons, which are applied to weapons to do the inverse of what potions provide (DOTs, debuffs, etc.). Potions are actually some of the very few things in ESO with an active cooldown associated to their use.
TAMRIEL, LAND OF WONDERS
With ESO’s graphics engine, the land of Tamriel is a truly beautiful one. ESO is definitely the best looking MMO I have ever played, and the art style and world design can at times take your breath away. Exploration is encouraged and rewarded, as there are locked chests and points of interest dotted around the world, not to mention those juicy Skyshards, although these can be shown on your map with an addon.
Speaking of locked chests, these are unlocked via a mini game which may be familiar to some, as it has been used before in other games. It involves using your lockpick to set the lock’s tumblers to the correct positions without breaking your lockpick and within a time limit. There are different levels of lock difficulty, which mainly affect the time limit and sensitivity/tolerance of correct tumbler positions.
ESO has one of the deepest crafting systems I have encountered in a game. While there are obviously certain best in slot endgame gear sets, as in any MMO (although in ESO, this is extremely situational, and group composition and environment play a huge role in what is viable), the crafted stuff is actually competitive.
The crafting skill lines all have passive skills which you spend Skill Points on (the same points you improve your combat abilities with), and there are mining nodes scattered throughout the world. Each crafting line obviously deals with its own area of gear, so Alchemy makes Potions and Poisons, Enchanting makes Enchantments for your weapons, armor and jewellery, Blacksmithing makes Heavy Armor and metallic weapons, Clothing makes Light and Medium armors, Woodworking makes Shields, Bows and Staves, and Provisioning makes food and drinks.
Any gear that you craft or loot (armors, weapons and enchants, not potions or poisons) can be broken down to level up the relevant skill line and perhaps recover some of the materials that went into making it. Gear can also be Improved (from white to green to blue to purple to gold). Like other MMOs, quality levels are denoted by a color scheme (Normal items are white, Fine items are green, Superior items are blue, Epic gear is purple and Legendary items are gold). Any gear (except currently jewelry, although a jewel crafting system has been datamined and is expected in a future patch) can be improved through the quality levels.
You can also break down a found item to Research any traits which are on it. There are nine traits for weapons, nine for armor, three for Jewellery and two other traits (Ornate and Intricate) which can be found on any item. Ornate items can be sold to Vendors for more gold and Intricate items yield more Inspiration when used to level up the skill line (Inspiration is the equivalent of Experience Points for the crafting system).
Each of the traits must be researched separately for each item type. So, you can break down a dagger to research the Precise trait (which adds to your Critical Hit chance), but you would need to find a sword with this trait to separately research the Precise trait for swords. Once you have researched a trait, it can be added to any item of that type which you craft.
Items with Set Bonuses can also be crafted, but this needs to be done at specific sites scattered around the world, which need to be found via exploration (or googled, of course!). And each crafted set requires that a certain number of traits per item are Researched. It doesn’t matter which traits, as this is only a quantity requirement.
So, to give two examples of this, there is a set called Night’s Silence. This set requires that you have researched at least two traits for each item in the set that you wish to craft. This set provides bonus Stamina if you wear two of its items, bonus Stamina Recovery for three items worn, bonus Critical chance for four items worn and, when five items (the maximum) are worn, you may ignore the movement speed penalty associated with Stealth.
For an example at the highest levels of complexity, there is the Eternal Hunt set, which requires a whopping NINE traits (in other words, ALL of them) to be researched on each item you plan to craft, and provides bonuses to Stamina and Stamina Recovery for each new item worn, culminating in a triggered effect at five pieces worn which causes you to drop a Rune whenever you dodge roll, which detonates when an enemy steps on it, poisoning and immobilizing them. In all cases, the actual bonus numbers scale according to your level, the item’s level and the quality level of the item (white/green/blue/purple/gold).
Much like some other MMOs these days, ESO has player housing. You receive a room in an Inn for free early on (as soon as you reach the first major city for your faction) which is so small it is hard to imagine even fitting a bed into it (but I did). But, you can buy some truly ridiculous houses through the cash shop, including ludicrously large castles for anything up to 15,000 (or more!) Crowns (about 100 Euros).
PRICING MODEL AND MICROTRANSACTIONS
ESO operates on the Buy to Play model, with an optional subscription service and a cash shop which also contains random loot crates (which can thankfully be completely ignored). There are several different versions of the base game available on ESO’s website, including a basic edition (everything you need to play), an Imperial Edition, which includes the basic edition, unlocks the Imperial race and provides a few goodies, such as a mount. Then there is the gold edition, which includes all of the paid DLC packs (all of which include access to a new zone with associated quests, gear, etc) and the Collector’s edition, which includes everything, as well as some Crowns (for the cash shop) and cosmetic gear, mounts, pets, etc. Then there are the various options to buy the first expansion, Morrowind, which opens up a massive new zone and story.
So, considering the Buy to Play model, what does the optional subscription offer, I hear you asking? Well, mostly nothing really special. You get a 10% bonus to earned Experience, Inspiration and Gold. Slightly reduced Research times. And a Crafting Bag. And that’s where they get you. Remember we discussed the crafting system? Well, you need massive quantities of all the materials to craft everything with, and the world is littered with resource nodes, so you accumulate this stuff rather rapidly. And, you run out of carrying space really quickly. The Crafting Bag is bottomless and any crafting materials are automatically placed there, so all your “Insufficient Space to Pick That Up” error messages simply disappear. And, if you are as into exploration, completionism and spending your time PLAYING the game rather than running back and forth to town to sell stuff and empty your bags as I am, that is no small thing.
The bottom line. ESO is a fantastic game, with deep, granular systems that tickle my need for something… different. And gorgeous graphics. And fully voice acted conversations (with your character being mute, sadly, but you can’t have everything, I suppose) with some big stars. In fact, Jennifer Hale voices the first NPC you meet in the main quest’s starter Zone, the main villain is voiced by Malcolm MacDowell, and you meet a lunatic voiced by John Cleese AND a crazy, blind old man who follows you through the rest of the game (voiced by Michael Gambon, no less) all within that same starting area.
So, buy it, play it, love it. Come and join my Guild and join me in my journeys across Tamriel. You won’t regret it.